Australian universities say campuses will look “radically” different next semester as students return to more in-person learning, although most large lectures will still be delivered online.
As many students yearn for a return to the classroom, universities say they are planning to offer in-person learning for up to 90% of courses next semester.
Even in Victoria, where a 14-day lockdown briefly put all classes back online, universities are hoping to increase face-to-face classes.
But the chief executive of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson, says institutions will still have to keep online infrastructure ready to go so they can respond to future lockdowns.
“Every time we think we are clear, we are not,” Jackson told Guardian Australia prior to the recent Melbourne lockdown.
‘Students want to come back’
Despite the optimism of universities, some students remain sceptical about the slow pace of the return to campuses.
The president of the University of Melbourne student union, Jack Buksh, says it has been frustrating to be able to go to pubs, clubs and large sporting venues, but not lectures.
“Students want to come back. It’s pretty simple,” he says.
While some small classes returned to face-to-face learning in late 2020 and early 2021, Buksh says most of his subjects were still online, even before the latest Victorian lockdown, and there were “no options to be on campus”.
He wants to see universities across the country do more to allow students on campus whenever the health advice allows.
It’s a sentiment shared by the federal education minister, Alan Tudge, who used his address to the Universities Australia conference last week to tell universities it was unacceptable that some students still only had “one contact per week”.
“Too many students directly … tell me that their usual student experience has still not returned,” he says. “This must start with a return of the previous face-to-face learning where Covid rules allow.”
The president of the University of Sydney student representative council, Swapnik Sanagavarapu, says the vast majority of students prefer in-person classes.
“Students often have their cameras and microphones off [when they are online], discussion is stilted and technical constraints like internet connection problems frustrate even the most keen students,” he says.
“Socially, students also miss out on the casual social connection.
“I’ve been very lucky that my classes have all been in person this semester, but the same is definitely not true for all of my peers.”
‘Thousands of moving parts’
Universities say it’s hard to be as responsive as they would like to be. Classes this year were mostly online because timetables and logistics for semester one were made in late 2020, when Covid restrictions were stricter, and many states still had social distancing requirements.
Jackson says planning in-person classes involved “thousands and thousands of moving parts”.
“When universities do their timetables and their curriculum, they do them months out,” she says. “Really strict lockdown requirements were very much in force in December and January. They made those curriculums in December and January. You cannot change a curriculum mid-term. You just can’t.”
The vice-chancellor of Monash University in Melbourne, Margaret Gardner, says it would cause major disruption to change plans mid-semester.
Prior to the latest Victorian lockdown, 98% of units at Monash in semester one had an on-campus option for small classes like tutorials and laboratories.
Gardner says lectures had to be online in semester one this year because of the recommendations in place when it started, but they would return to in-person teaching in semester two.
The University of Technology Sydney’s deputy vice-chancellor, Shirley Alexander, says the university returned 26% of classes to full in-person learning in the first semester as restrictions loosened, but could not bring them all back in the second.
“Students have asked us for certainty in their timetable and hence this semester we have not brought everything back on campus,” she says. “Unlike the theatre, football matches, concerts, festivals, we can’t cancel classes at a moment’s notice.”
Campuses will look ‘radically different’
Jackson says universities want students back on campus “as much as anyone”, anticipating between 60% and 90% of activities will be back across the country.
UTS, for example, says it will have 70% of learning on campus and 30% online for semester two.
Victoria University and Curtin University are also planning to drastically increase the amount of campus learning.
“Every university is doing absolutely what they can to get as much back on campuses they can,” she says.
“If you walk on to a campus now compared to six months ago it’s a different kettle of fish. It was awful working on campus six months ago ... it’s a totally different situation now.
“Semester two will be radically different. Every university plans to ramp up semester two.”
Dr Alison Barnes, the president of the National Tertiary Education Union, says most teachers and staff are looking forward to the return of in-person lectures.
“Staff and students are generally keen to get back into the classroom,” she says.
“To connect with students face-to-face is really important. It can be demoralising if everybody’s cameras are off and you are delivering a lecture. If you can see their faces you can pick up on what they are understanding, and what they aren’t.”
Barnes says online learning was not necessarily bad, but it’s not a substitute for in-person learning.
“It can be a valuable pedagogical tool if it is done properly, but we are worried that universities are seeking to use online learning as a way of driving down costs,” she says.
“Staff went out of their way to work incredibly hard to get material online during the Covid crisis. This created incredible workload issues for staff.”
An online, in-person hybrid
Despite the push to return to campus, some pandemic changes will remain. Many universities, including the University of Sydney and University of NSW, says large lectures would remain mostly online.
Jackson says a trend towards online learning was already under way before Covid struck the sector.
“In many cases the students are telling us the least meaningful part of the university experience is going to those big lectures,” she says.
The University of Melbourne and Monash both say they plan to offer large lectures in-person as well as online in semester two.
Victoria University says “our students want to be able to choose whether they study online, in-person or in a hybrid mode”.
This model was preferred by students during this transition period, Buksh says.
“We support that,” he says. “A lot of our international student population can’t come here and a lot of students who are immunocompromised are not ready to come back to campus.”
Sanagavarapu agrees, saying the the ideal balance would be for every class to have an equal proportion of in-person and online opportunities.
“So that students who are offshore are not disadvantaged and some onshore students can opt-in to online learning, while also retaining all the benefits that in-person learning offers.”
Buksh says Melbourne’s latest lockdown also showed how important it was for universities to be ready to adapt.
“But when the health advice allows on campus learning, when it allows pubs and sport to go ahead, universities should be bringing students back in a safe manner.”